A smaller member of the Canidae family, which includes wolves and coyotes, red foxes are found in multiple habitats throughout North America, Europe and Asia, their numbers increasing in areas where their larger canid cousins have been hunted, trapped or otherwise extirpated.
Just as wolves, limiting competition for smaller prey, hold down coyote numbers, both wolves and coyotes keep fox numbers in check. Red foxes were introduced into Southern Australia in the 19th century, and to parts of the southern United States in the 18th century, to provide sport for hunters, and, as you’d expect, with the loss of predators, they are a problem in some areas in their impact on older native species.
Red fox characteristics
Not to be confused with gray and arctic foxes, which are different species, the red fox comes in a variety of color variations, sometimes within the same litter, ranging from the most common appearance, like the photos of “Mama” and “Pippen” on this page, to animals with brown, black or silverish coats, or any of these colors, along with white, as markings on their coats. Males (“dog foxes”) are larger than females (“vixens”), and, as with wolves, northern foxes tend to be larger than southern ones, with natural selection rewarding the higher body mass-to-surface ratio, with its more efficient heat retention. Average weight range is 8 to 18 pounds, with body lengths up to 3 feet, including the tail.
Through their cat-like eyes, foxes have adequate, but not exceptional, eyesight, very keen hearing and a highly developed sense of smell, which, along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through almost any terrain, makes them formidable and effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country, and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Fox will lie in ambush waiting for the sounds of prey moving through grass, which prompts their familiar leaping attack, or underground, which leads to quickly digging the prey out.
Red foxes are not only key predators in the Adirondacks, but with their omnivorous diets, are much more adaptable than wolves, and can be found in almost any kind of terrain or habitat, anywhere from Adirondack meadows, to suburban backyards, to farms or even Central Park in Manhattan. In fact, the red fox is the most widely dispersed mammalian carnivore in the northern hemisphere, and quite possibly, the world. Unlike wolves, foxes are not pack animals, and while they are generally, but not strictly, monogamous, they only stay together through the mating and rearing seasons. Also unlike wolves, fox can be prey, to wolf, coyote, fisher, bobcat and Great Horned Owl, as well as predator, so they provide an equally complex, but different, interrelationship with their environments.
Red fox eat invertebrates such as insects, worms, crayfish and mollusks, small rodents like mice, wood rats, squirrels and voles, as well as rabbits, fish, reptiles and birds. Vegetation, such as fruits and seeds are eaten seasonally, and accessible human garbage will be inspected and scavenged. Deer fawn are born in June, and the fox will sometimes stumble upon and take a fawn, an event which involves some luck.
The process of natural selection results in the calves of many ungulates, for example, deer, moose and elk, as being nearly odorless, which hinders detection from predators, such as fox, coyote, wolf and bear. The more odorless the calf, the more likely it grows to be able to breed, and pass along its genes, etc. Not to extend this digression too far, but I read somewhere that a grizzly sow in Yellowstone got around this hindrance, by smelling an elk cow in lactation, lingering around suitable grass cover for a calf, and then circling inward in a spiral through the grass until she came upon the calf. Talk about a clever bear!
Now and then, vulnerable farm animals, such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal, and that secure enclosures, particularly for hens, and guard dogs to keep the fox in the field, but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation. Always opportunistic, fox will cache prey in various locations, as a hedge against lean times when prey are scarce, thus inadvertently feeding the creatures who sometimes come upon these caches.
Rodents, especially the white footed mouse, are the principle vector for spreading Lyme disease through black legged ticks, which pick up the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi from the rodent, and then share it with you, your dog your cat, or your horse. Deer are significant carriers of the tick, but Lyme disease starts with rodents. Our hero in the battle against Lyme disease is any predator which eats rodents, from birds of prey through coyotes and smaller predators, but especially the red fox, which eats huge quantities of rodents. If for no other reason, fox hunting and trapping should be banned.
Mating and young pups
Foxes mate between December and March, depending on latitude and severity of Winter. While foxes tend to be monogomous, multiple males may scrap over the right to mate with a single, unattached, female. After mating, a suitable den is chosen. Foxes may use a hollow log, dig a den under a wall or barn, or enlarge the dens of other small mammals, lining them with grasses and plants to provide warmth and dryness. Fox dens often have more than one entrance to allow safe departure when predators or dogs come digging, or as a simple precaution against being observed.
Two to ten pups are born after about 51 days, and their eyes open after about two weeks. Mom stays close to guard and nurse the pups, who typically wean after a month. During this time, Dad is out hunting almost continually to provide for Mom and pups, but after the pups are weaned, and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad may help watch the pups, while Mom gets in some hunting and exercise away from the den.
Red fox maintain home ranges of between 3 and 6 square miles while denning, and young may disperse to find their own territories in the Fall, up to 160 miles away. Fox are solitary except during the mating and denning seasons. Ranges of foxes during their solitary periods range up to 20 square miles, depending on availability of prey, and with some overlapping of territories. Foxes release a very musky odor, chemically less potent, but similar to a skunk’s odor, which may be readily detected within a few yards, and can be used to locate a fox den, or area of fox activity. Often times when you believe you are smelling a skunk, you may be close to a fox den.
Fox fur is unfortunately still a popular item in fashion: see, for example, http://www.adirondackwildlife.org/Bald_Eagle_LegHold_Trap.html. The brutality of trapping is exceeded only by the cruelty of raising fox and other creatures in small, packed cages on fur farms, where they are killed, so that their coats can be fashioned to adorn some vain, misguided consumer.
A low percentage of fox are rabies carriers, so any fox which seems unsteady, or behaves in an unnatural manner, for example, showing no fear of people, should be avoided.
“Mama” (at left) was struck by a car in January 2010, discovered in a ditch days later, badly dehydrated, starving and pregnant, and spent several months in rehab with Kim, a rehabber from New Hampshire, during which, incredibly, she delivered her pups. Unable to nurse them, the pups were raised by Kim, and were released into the wild. As part of her quarantine from other creatures, Mama was given rabies vaccination in January.
If you are reading this, and ever encounter raccoons, foxes or any other creature which can potentially carry rabies, do not touch them under any circumstances, even if you are trying to help an injured animal, as you will be signing their death warrant. The only way to test an animal for rabies, is to euthanize it. When in doubt, call your local rehabber, and they will locate a rehabber who has the proper training and vaccinations to handle rabies-vector species.
Photos: “Eye in the Park” photos by Joe Kostoss. Local Adirondack fox pup by Bob Hockert of Wilmington. Fox Pastel (“Mama”) by Wendy Hall. All images courtesy of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge.